Leaders Need To Act To Stop Burnout Raging Through Their Organizations

Leaders Need To Act To Stop Burnout Raging Through Their Organizations

These days there is so much discussion of mental health and wellbeing that it might argued that awareness campaigns like the Mental Health Awareness Week drawing to a close in the U.K. today and the month-long initiative that runs for another 10 days in the U.S. have done their job. On the other hand, it is one thing to be aware of an issue and to talk about it and quite another to do anything about it.

The fact is that there is an awful lot of stress and general anxiety about. Much of it can be put down to the ills of modern life — the constant striving to gain entry to the best schools, the difficulty of finding affordable accommodation, the constant presence of electronic media and the rest. But there can also be little doubt that work plays its part, too. According to Dr Robyne Hanley-Dafoe, an expert on resiliency and author of the forthcoming Stress Wisely: How to be Well in an Unwell World, workers have been exhausted by all the change of recent years, culminating in the pandemic and the resulting dramatic shifts in methods of working. In a recent interview, she added: “As a collective, people are depleted.” It was unsurprising, then, that increasing numbers of employees seemed to be engaging in “quiet quitting,” “productivity theatre” and other behaviours demonstrating a lack of engagement. Moreover, it was also apparent that attempts to curb such activities through tracking systems and the like were not only doomed to fail, they were likely to make the situation worse.

This is because in the end it all comes down to trust or, rather, a lack of it. This works both ways, as Hanley-Dafoe explained. On the one hand, “the psychological safety net of employees has come under threat” and so people don’t feel fully supported. On the other, many managers are uncomfortable with the new ways of working and do not trust that employees will do as required when not in their direct sight. A particular problem, she added, was that many managers had never learned or been trained in how to manage remotely.

The need for employers to do more to help is recognized by Brian Johnson, director at specialist recruitment consultancy Forward Role, which has published a guide to dealing with stress in the workplace. In a statement, he says: “At the end of the day, we spend most of our time at work so stress in the workplace needs to be addressed and employees need to be supported.” Among his recommendations are providing access to mental health resources, offering more holiday and sick leave — and, perhaps unsurprisingly, recruiting more workers to reduce the heavy workloads that often create conflict and stress. 

Crucially, though, organizations need to recognize the difference between stress and burnout. In a paper for Agenda Consulting, which specializes in helping non-profit organizations, consultant Aidan Stead says that stress in small doses can be good, because it shows that individuals are engaged and care, and it can create the energy to do good work. But, he adds, burnout is a step beyond that. “People who are experiencing burnout in the true sense of the word are shutting down, disconnecting, they are not stressed because they no longer care – or more accurately, they no longer have the capacity to care.”

Pointing to a McKinsey & Co article on the burnout problem from a year ago, Stead adds that the usual wellbeing strategies employed by all sorts of organizations are unlikely to work if the issue is burnout rather than stress. At the core of burnout is organizational culture — and it is that that needs to be addressed if employers are not to see a continuation of the fall-out in factors such as increased absenteeism and sick leave, higher staff turnover and, crucially, reduced productivity and engagement.

This idea is recognized by Hanley-Dafoe, who sees disengagement as a symptom of burnout and states that it is not the work itself that typically leads to burnout so much as the fact that it can require an individual to “live outside their values.” By this she means employees not being able to do things that are important to them, such as spend time with their families or take a parent to a medical appointment.

Dealing with such a situation requires a structured approach applied to the whole business rather than a tailored one of dealing with individuals’ health issues. It also requires a different type of leadership — and that is the challenge because too often the priority is meeting targets in the here and now rather than creating something sustainable for the future. As she said, it “all comes back to that underpinning of trust.”